It’s wedding season! For engaged LGBTQ couples, it’s a time of immense joy that is often paired with a fair amount of grief, too. This summer we’re exploring challenges specific to the months leading up to marriage. This week, we’re talking about in-laws.
My experience with in-laws is a bit of an anomaly—I have them, but I haven’t met most of them. The only members of Constantino’s family I’ve met are two of his wonderful sisters, who flew long distance to attend our wedding. Because of Constantino’s semi-estranged relationship with his parents, I don’t know if I ever will meet them or his extended family. I’ve heard that his folks are polite people who would treat me hospitably, but I know too that their disapproval of our marriage would make relationship with them difficult. Part of me feels robbed, that I’m missing out on an opportunity to know Constantino better through his familial relationships; the other part of me wonders if perhaps it’s for the best.
We have a number of LGBTQ friends getting married this year—three same-sex couples at our church alone are engaged!—and it has reminded us of the diversity of the in-law experience. We have one friend whose future in-laws have welcomed him into the family unconditionally, even while some of them were still working through their beliefs about same-sex marriage. And we have another friend at the opposite end of the spectrum, whose in-laws have unequivocally rejected him (and by extension, their own son). Their marriage last year was, sadly, the end of their relationship with that side of the family. The in-law experience is not monolithic.
More frequently, however, LGBTQ couples may face a situation somewhere in-between. The in-laws may not support the relationship, but they may not cut ties, either. That can leave us in the awkward position of trying to build relationships with people who don’t seem particularly interested in having us around.
For example, we have some friends getting married this summer who are fully affirmed by one family, but not the other. They live near the unaffirming folks and frequently spend time with them. For the woman who is about to marry into this family, it has resulted in some awkward and uncomfortable conversations. She’s allowed in, but she’s not fully welcome. She has a relationship with her future in-laws, but it occurs at arm’s length. Some of her future relatives have even confronted her with harsh words. She is the tangible manifestation of what they disapprove, so it is easier for them to direct their hostility toward her.
In situations like this, the most important thing for the couple to do is turn toward each other as an anchor. If you are the one who has been affronted by your in-laws, share this with your partner. Speak from a place of vulnerability, being mindful that your partner may not see their parents or siblings in the same light that you do. Don’t use accusatory language such as, “Your mom always does this” or “Your brother is so...” Instead, share with your partner how you feel: “I felt diminished today when this happened;” “It was frustrating to me the other day when...”
In turn, the one hearing unwelcome observations about their family must prioritize listening to their partner and understanding their feelings. Avoid defensiveness, and if you disagree with their read of the situation, address the disagreement as you would any other conflict in your relationship—first working through it yourselves, and then facing the outside world together as a unified front. Sharing openly with each other, and secure in the support you give each other, you can then act as a team. No one should be expected to face hostility from in-laws on their own. The partner whose family of origin it is must be both the bridge that facilitates relationship and the moat that protects his or her spouse (or future spouse) when the family goes on the attack.
When boundaries have to be drawn, the one whose family is being problematic is better prepared to enforce them. With our own families, we at least understand the relational dynamics and we probably have a good sense of who’s going to affirm our marriage and who’s going to reject it. With in-laws, we’re working at a disadvantage. We don’t fully understand the complex family histories, and we’re on the outside hoping to gain admittance into the circle. We’re trying to be liked, and so we may find ourselves biting our tongues in certain circumstances even when our jaws are clenched in anger. If these are people who are going to be a part of our lives—for the rest of our lives—it makes sense to keep the peace. This is why, if you face a situation that requires a good cop/bad cop routine, the latter is better played by the person who has always been part of the family.
Families must quickly learn that contempt for or exclusion of one’s spouse won’t be tolerated. Establishing these rules early on can set the groundwork for civility if not acceptance. If, for example, I’m invited to a family function and my husband is not, it’s a no-go. If a crazy uncle were to say something derogatory about him, I need to be the first person to stand up and call it out. This can be difficult if you’re someone who seeks your family’s approval, or if you’ve never really had to stand up to your family in this way. But it must be done for the health of your marriage.
When Constantino and I got married, it took time for me to learn that he was my new family—my new priority. I’ve been loyal to my birth family for so long that it was difficult for me to imagine someone else taking precedence. But if the situation arises, I have to be ready to defend and protect my husband, even if it’s from the other people in life I love most. Your spouse always come first, and your parents, siblings, and extended family must know and respect this. Fortunately for us, Constantino has a great relationship with my family, and they have generously invited him into relationship. Knowing that we have the support of one side of the family makes our estrangement from the other much more tolerable.
Family conflicts are a part of life. When they arise, you must be prepared to address them and work through them as a team. The season of engagement is a great time to start laying the groundwork for how you will operate in marriage. This is when you must set your extended families’ expectations, and make it clear to them that the person you are marrying—the person becoming your new next of kin—will henceforth have your primary loyalty. But let that firmness be tempered with kindness toward your in-laws; benevolence is a salve that has a way of seeping into the cracks of even the hardest facades.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by JD Hancock, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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